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Jewish Literacy: Reading the Essential Judaic Canon

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It is not uncommon, in my experience, for a new student to declare "why were we not taught any of this!?" after doing some in depth study. Like many American Jews, and despite the sincere efforts of the educators, I was left with a confused, incomplete and vaguely lame feeling about my Judaism. I was quite convinced that it held precious little that I could benefit from and if I wanted "real" spirituality, the disciplines of the East were a better bet. All it took to shatter my ossified collection of misconceptions was rudimentary exposure to some basic, authentic, classical Jewish texts. It was there that I discovered Judaism is infused to its core with mysticism, that it possesses works of philosophy that rival anything that has ever been produced, and that it has a profound and moving code of ethics that touches on virtually every aspect of the human condition.

Far too many Jews reject their own legacy due to a misplaced antagonism born of ignorance. This is not their fault but rather the fruits of an epically failed pedagogic system and a general collapse of Jewish religiosity in the new world, which itself was caused by a dozen or so sociological factors.

The irony is that "modern" Jews close off worlds to themselves -- worlds built on principles of openness, inquiry and spiritual freedom -- on the misplaced assumption that what they are ignoring is closed and stultifying. This failure to explore is willful blindness masquerading as open-mindedness. It is much more sensible -- reasonable -- to reject something after learning what it really is. Inspired by Professor Harold Bloom's stand for Western literature, I would like to share what I (subjectively) consider to be the bedrock of Judaic knowledge for the modern mind. Those interested may read, learn and draw their own conclusions.

All of Judaism is built off dual written and oral components. The Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings (Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) comprise the written. The Oral was originally meant to be just that -- oral only. During the Roman occupation and subsequent exile, this body of knowledge was committed to writing as an emergency measure and was formalized into what is now known as the Talmud (authoritative case law, ethics, mysticism and ritual practice), the Midrashim (homiletical stories) and the Kabbalah. While it would be ideal to be able to learn through all of this material in the original, sadly, multiple skills and languages are required to just crack one of the Talmud's 5,700 pages or the 24 volumes of the Zohar.

Fortunately, several fine English translations of these works now exist and as such have opened a gate that has been locked for several generations. It should be noted that works such as the Talmud and the Zohar are quite advanced and intended for the seasoned scholar. Nonetheless, with some basic instruction, a great deal can be gleaned from them -- even by the beginner. With the foregoing in mind, what follows is the list of what I consider to be the most essential works (available in English) to engender or enhance Jewish literacy for the present generation:

The Chumash (the Five Books of Moses)
  • Artscroll Edition
  • "The Living Torah" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
  • "Rashi on the Torah," Artscroll Edition
  • "Ramban on the Torah," Artscroll Edition
  • "Frameworks" by Rabbi Matis Weinberg
  • "Explorations" by Rabbi Ari Kahn
  • "New Studies in the Weekly Parsha" by Nehama Leibowitz
The Tanach (Torah, Prophets, Writings)
  • "The Living Nach"
  • The Rubin Edition Prophets
The Talmud
  • Schottenstein Edition (36 Tractates)
The Mishna
  • Yad Avrohom Edition
The Midrash
  • "The Midrash Says"
Jewish Philosophy
  • "Guide for the Perplexed" by Rabbi Moses Maimonides
  • "Horeb" by Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch
  • "Jewish Symbolism" by RSR Hirsch
  • "Strive for Truth" by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
  • "The Way of God" by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
  • "Beliefs and Opinions" by Rav Saadia Gaon
  • "The Kuzari" by Rabbi Yehudah haLevi
  • "The Aryeh Kaplan Reader"
  • "Between Silence and Speech" by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
  • "The Lonely Man of Faith" by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
  • "The Bridge of Life" by Rabbi Aharon Tuchazinski
  • "Designer world" by Rabbi Avrohom Katz
  • "Letters to a Buddhist Jew" by Rabbi Akiva Tatz
  • "Living Inspired" by Rabbi Akiva Tatz
  • "The Informed Soul" by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
  • "Judaism" by David Gelernter
Holidays
  • "Days of Joy" by Sfas Emes
  • "The Three Festivals" by Sfas Emes
  • "Patterns in Time" by Rabbi Matis Weinberg
  • "Purim Bursts" by Sarah Yehudit Schneider
  • "60 Days" by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
  • "The Gates of Repentance" by Rabbeinu Yonah
  • "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik
  • "Sabbath: Day of Eternity" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
Jewish History
  • "Triumph of Survival, Echos of Glory and Herald of Destiny" by Rabbi Berel Wein
  • "The Holocaust" by Sir Martin Gilbert
  • "A History of the Jews" by Paul Johnson
  • "The Gifts of the Jews" by Thomas Cahill
  • "World Perfect" by Rabbi Ken Spiro
Personal Growth
  • "Ethics from Sinai" by Irving Bunim
  • "The Path of the Just" by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
  • "The Ways of the Righteous" by Torah Classics Library
  • "Duties of the Heart" by Rabbi Bachaya Ibn Pakuda
  • "Awareness" by Miriam Adahan
  • "The Garden of Emuna" by Rabbi Shalom Arush
  • "Conscious Community" by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira
  • "Begin Again Now" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
  • "The Palm Tree of Deborah" by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero
  • "Ascending Jacob's Ladder" by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
  • "Building a Sanctuary in Your Heart" by Rav Itamar Shwarz
  • "The Chofetz Chaim: A Way a Day" by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz
Kabbalah/Spirituality
  • "Meditation and Kaballah" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
  • "Inner Space" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
  • "What You Need to Know About Kaballah" by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
  • "The Hebrew Letters" by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
  • "You Are What You Hate" by Sarah Yehudit Schneider
  • "Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine" by SY Schneider
  • "The Mystical Nature of Light" by Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman
  • "Kabbalah" by Avraham Yaakov Finkel
  • "Kabbalah Concepts" by Rabbi Raphael Afilalo
  • "Kabbalah and Consciousness" by Allen Afterman
Jewish Identity/Validity of the Torah
  • "The Hidden Face of God" by Dr. Gerald Schroeder
  • "The Science of God" by Dr. Gerald Schroeder
  • "Living Up to the Truth" by Rabbi Dovid Gottleib
  • "Permission to Believe/Receive" by Rabbi Lawrence Keleman
  • "Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew" by Haim Shore
  • "Waking Up Jewish" by Rabbi Uri Zohar
  • "The Road Back" by Rabbi Mayer Schiller
  • "The Coming Revolution" by Rabbi Zamir Cohen
  • "The Origin of Speeches" by Isaac Mozeson

I believe that the average new reader will be pleasantly pleased to discover that far from being the antiquated musings of some Bronze Age shepherds, these works represent timeless and universal principles -- ideas that have changed the world and are part and parcel of much of what we now regard as right and good in the world. They touch on every facet of the human experience -- from psychology to community building, property rights to marital harmony, agriculture to meditation.

This list is literally a drop in the bucket. It has had an astounding shelf life, and for good reason.

As one of our students once put it "so many of my ancestors were willing to die to preserve all of this. Shouldn't I at least learn it?"

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